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UNC vs. West Virginia: Winners, Losers, & Honorable Mentions

Let’s put a bow on the 2023 season.

NCAA Football: Duke’s Mayo Bowl-North Carolina at West Virginia Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

And just like that, the 2023 North Carolina Tar Heels football season is over.

There was not much to like for Carolina fans during the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, but there were a few individual performances that can provide just a sliver of hope for next season.

Winners

J.J. Jones

The junior receiver gave himself the lead in the race to be WR1 heading into the 2024 season.

Jones caught all four targets in the Mayo Bowl, going for 53 yards and UNC’s lone touchdown.

NCAA Football: Duke’s Mayo Bowl-North Carolina at West Virginia Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The impressive performance by Jones was not the number of catches or reception yards, but the manner in which he hauled in the passes. He made freshman quarterback Conner Harrell look good when thrown in his direction. Jones created space and caught the ball when it was thrown only where the receiver could get it.

Power Echols

The 2023 Third-Team All-ACC linebacker started his campaign towards the 2024 first team in the Mayo Bowl.

THB’s Player of the Game was responsible for 11 total tackles, filling the void left by his former defensive partner Cedric Gray.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - North Carolina v West Virginia Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

All in all, it was not the worst game by any measure by the defense. The defense allowed just two touchdowns, and had some good stops even when West Virginia started drives with excellent field position.

Echols was the driving force behind this defensive effort.

Losers

Special Teams

For teams to take it to the next level, special teams must perform like clockwork. Good coverage when kicking, careful not to allow the huge momentum shifts that come with those game-changing moments.

In the Mayo Bowl, the special teams looked like an average team during Week 1 or a bad team at any point during the season.

Carolina dodged a bullet when West Virginia failed to score off the punt return fumble recovery, but at the end of the next drive, the rugby punt that led to a 78-yard West Virginia punt return touchdown was one of those moments that leave football fans in disbelief.

In the second half, UNC was called for kick catch interference, reducing an already paltry 37-yard punt to a net of 22 yards. The cherry on top, though, was a 17-yard run by a backup Mountaineer punter on a fake field goal on a fourth and five for West Virginia. That play eventually led to just a field goal.

Poor execution and mental lapses were the standard for special teams on Wednesday night.

Offensive Line

Here is a real text message exchange during the first UNC drive of the game:

Friend: Conner Harrell has some wheels

Me: Good thing because he’s going to be running for his life

The offensive line allowed seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss, and did not provide for much else. Yes, there were changes and opt-outs, but this looked like some of the very worst efforts over the last few seasons. The ACC’s leading rusher, Omarion Hampton, managed only 62 yards on 19 carries. The running back never had a chance with what the line provided the team.

Honorable Mention

Conner Harrell

You could tell that it was Harrell’s first collegiate start.

The freshman quarterback provided flashes of athleticism and vision. Those two factors were critical in Carolina going 5-8 on third down and 1-1 on fourth down in the first half.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - North Carolina v West Virginia Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

However, his two interceptions and moments of indecision in the pocket showed how green Harrell remains. At halftime, despite his first half interception, it felt as though Harrell was going to have a solid evening.

The second half’s offensive impotence does not fall on Harrell’s shoulders. There were times when a checkdown or throwaway would have been the preferred outcome, but the offensive game plan must set up a freshman up for success.

At the very least, Harrell showed us that he deserves a shot at QB1, and it should be a fun competition to watch heading into the fall.